As Pagans around the United States and the Northern Hemisphere prepare for Samhain, probably the holiest of the eight Sabbats in the Wheel of the Year – which occurs on October 31st/November 1st, I would like to take a moment to talk about one of the traditions of Samhain… from a Deaf perspective.
Many Pagan paths and Wiccan traditions will celebrate Samhain with a Dumb Supper – sometimes also known as the Feast for the Dead. The purpose of this meal is to honor those who have passed on before us… both within the past year, and years long gone. It’s particularly a time for remembering our ancestors, which tends to be a strong aspect of Paganism. Samhain is seen as the time when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest and in fact some say is actually lifted, and thus communication between the mundane world and the spirit world is at its best. It’s a night when we believe that the dead can actually see/hear us communicate with them, and maybe even communicate back. Samhain represents death and resurrection, new beginnings and fond farewells.
Thus this is a time for inviting the spirits of the dead to join you…hence the tradition of the Dumb Supper. Some Pagans will actually set the table with an extra setting specifically for those from the beyond to have a place to sit and partake of the feast. Such a feast occurs in silence with nobody speaking, out of reverence for the dead. This is where it gets the name “Dumb Supper.”
altar table representing the two worlds…
the world of the dead, and the world of the living
Now here comes the problem – while I respect this tradition and its role in the overall celebrations of the Wheel of the Year… I’m not real comfortable with the name.
Say the word “dumb” in the Deaf Community, and you will probably see a lot of squirming and awkward facial expressions. It’s a painful reminder of a time when a lot of people referred to us as “Deaf and Dumb” – a term many of us have come to detest. As explained in the website of the National Association of the Deaf, Deaf and Dumb is viewed as
A relic from the medieval English era, this is the granddaddy of all negative labels pinned on deaf and hard of hearing people. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, pronounced us “deaf and dumb”, because he felt that deaf people were incapable of being taught, of learning, and of reasoned thinking. To his way of thinking, if a person could not use his/her voice in the same way as hearing people, then there was no way that this person could develop cognitive abilities. (Source: Deaf Heritage, by Jack Gannon, 1980)
In later years, “dumb” came to mean “silent”, and a lot of people still refer to Deaf people as “deaf and dumb.” This definition still persists, because that is how people see deaf people. The term is offensive to deaf and hard of hearing people for a number of reasons. One, deaf and hard of hearing people are by no means “silent” at all. They use sign language, lip-reading, vocalizations, and so on to communicate. Communication is not reserved for hearing people alone, and using one’s voice is not the only way to communicate. Two, “dumb” also has a second meaning: stupid. Deaf and hard of hearing people have encountered plenty of people who subscribe to the philosophy that if you cannot use your voice well, you don’t have much else “upstairs”, and have nothing going for you. Obviously, this is incorrect, ill-informed, and false. Deaf and hard of hearing people have repeatedly proved that they have much to contribute to the society at large.
Yes, I know I am probably going to get a lot of comments and emails from Pagans… telling me that this is the traditional name; that it refers to the practice of remaining silent and not using one’s voice during the feast; in no way is it intended to be offensive or to insult Deaf people; that everyone is tired of having to constantly worry about being “politically correct” out of fear of upsetting someone; and to stop being so dang sensitive, it’s not always about me and my deafness.
But the fact remains – I’m a Deaf person and I’m not comfortable with the name.
Goddess help us if a group of Deaf Pagans decided to get together and celebrate Samhain in this manner… would the feast be known as “The Deaf and Dumb Supper” ???
And if you really stop and think about where the term “Dumb” comes from (as explained above) and how it came to refer to the concept of being silent… well, do we Pagans want to be thought of as also being incapable of reasoned thinking, or developing cognitive abilities?
So what do I believe it should be called? Well, how about calling it The Feast for the Dead? Or if nothing else, The Silent Supper? While I do agree that us Deafies are anything BUT silent, at least “Silent” carries less of a negative connotation when used in this manner than does “Dumb.”
I’ve shared my thoughts on this issue in the past, with mixed responses. Some people acknowledged that I had a good point, and were agreeable to the idea of changing the name to be less offensive. Others informed me politely but firmly that this was the name, and they were not changing it. And still others would get into heated discussions with me, stating that I was simply stirring up trouble where it wasn’t warranted, and that my whole argument was in fact “just plain dumb!”
Sooo…I leave it to my readership.
What do YOU think? If you practice the Pagan Path, have you ever participated in such a feast? What do or would you call it? Do you think I have a valid point here, or am I in fact making a mountain out of a molehill? If you are Deaf, how do you feel about this name? Does it bother you, or can you accept the term as used in this particular manner? Is it really appropriate, or even accurate?
I’d be curious to see your responses in the comment section below, or feel free to email me if you prefer.